Voter turnout in North Rhine-Westphalia has never been lower than in the state elections on Sunday. Only 55.5 percent of those entitled to vote found the political program of one of the dozens of parties from right to left sufficiently attractive to participate.
In 17 of the 128 constituencies of the most populous federal state, not even every second person entitled to vote – that is, all adults with a German passport – exercised their democratic rights.
Particularly violent: In the Duisburg III constituency, only 38.1 percent of the approximately 100,000 eligible voters living there took part in the political decision as to which parties will shape the course in the West over the next five years.
What are the reasons for these remarkable numbers?
According to the election researcher Achim Goerres from the University of Duisburg, it is too early for in-depth analysis, but one factor for the lower voter turnout may simply have been the good weather. “Good weather has different negative effects on different groups,” says the politics professor WELT.
Those who have internalized voting as a norm and see it as a civic duty go in all weathers. These tend to be people with higher formal education or older people who belong to generations for whom voting is part of their identity. In addition, voting in the polling station is “more common among voters with a migration background”, for whom the weather then plays a role.
Goerres observes a second possible reason: “Although people are politicized, the most pressing issues such as the Ukraine war, the energy issue and inflation have little to do with national politics.”
After all, compared to the previous state election in 2017, the polarization caused by the AfD had disappeared. “The party played an important role because it not only mobilized its own voters, but also persuaded citizens who had the opposite attitude to vote for one of the other parties.” AfD topics such as national identity, immigration and its consequences or EU skepticism are currently of lesser interest .
However, the election researcher considers “not the low turnout in 2022 to be a special event, but the high turnout in 2017”. For decades there has been a “downward trend, which unfortunately is now picking up again after the positive outlier in 2017”.
More young people are growing into the electorate who have only weakly internalized the compulsory voting norm. “Certainly not because of a lack of interest in politics, but younger generations are more likely to express themselves politically more broadly by being active in NGOs, buying certain products or starting an online petition. However, voter turnout tends to decline among younger generations.”
The most important structural factor for voting participation overall is “the socio-economic level of the district”. Where many people are registered as unemployed or receive basic security, fewer are chosen.
This does not automatically mean that the unemployed are responsible for a low turnout. “But if you live in a part of the city where few people vote, they don’t talk about upcoming elections either. In Duisburg, we were already able to determine differences of 30 percentage points in voter turnout between the 46 districts.”
Viola Neu, election researcher at the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation, sees “the low level of political polarization” as the main reason for the low turnout. There were no major issues, and overall, “a large majority did not consider any issue to be particularly important for the country,” says Neu WELT. “That even applies to the topic of Ukraine, war, Russia, which in North Rhine-Westphalia was only mentioned by about every tenth voter.”
Nico Siegel from Infratest Dimap analyses: “As in Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein, voter turnout has also fallen sharply in NRW. In the shadow of the Ukraine war, many people are obviously moving on other issues than those that are at the center of the state election campaign.” In North Rhine-Westphalia, there was also the fact that “the two major parties didn’t have a really attractive offer either in terms of content or personnel”.
The Union has lost almost 250,000 votes, the SPD even 800,000 voters. AfD and Linke also fought “on the fringes with decreasing cohesion”. Only the Greens were able to record increases in absolute votes, which is “not least due to the positive assessment” of Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economics Minister Robert Habeck.
According to Siegel, “the differences in voter turnout are considerable, as in other federal states, and regional prosperity effects are reflected here”: while more than 60 percent voted in prosperous cities such as Münster or Bonn, “in Gelsenkirchen it was “just over 40 percent on average” . Infratest Dimap observes such differences “for example in different districts in Berlin”, also in other countries like France there is “a very strong connection between economic power, population development and voter turnout”.
Not only last Sunday was the group of non-voters in North Rhine-Westphalia stronger than any party; According to the Federal Agency for Civic Education, this has been the case since the 1995 state elections, with the exception of 2017.
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